Sea monster in the Hebrides

I have just started reading – rather belatedly in life – ‘Ring of Bright Water’, Gavin Maxwell’s classic account of his life, in the company of various pet otters, at Sandaig, a remote bay in the western Highlands of Scotland. About a third of the way in, I found the following intriguing reference to a ‘sea monster’ seen off the coast of Soay in the Inner Hebrides. I quote verbatim:

‘No sea monster has ever come my way since I have been here [at Sandaig], though in the summer of 1959 there was something not easily explicable close by. It was seen by Tex Geddes, once a harpoon gunner on the Island of Soay Shark Fisheries, and now the owner of the island, and an English visitor whom he had taken out fishing in his boat.

‘On Sunday 13th September, he took his visitor, a Mr Gavin, an engineer from Hertfordshire, to fish for mackerel off the southern tip of Soay. It was a hot, flat-calm day, with every object at the sea’s surface visible for miles. At about four o’clock in the afternoon Mr Gavin drew Tex’s attention to a large black object about a mile away in the direction of Loch Slapin. The mackerel were playing on the surface and making the sea boil all around the boat, so Tex did not at first take any notice, and went on fishing, facing in the opposite direction. The object, however, drew steadily nearer, and at length both men stopped fishing in order to watch it.

‘When it was some two hundred yards away Tex noticed a party of five Killer whales not far off in the direction of the Island of Rhum. Tex trusts Killers no more than I do; in the words of his letter to me the next day: “I was not sure what kind of thing this was that was slowly making up on us – it certainly did not look like a Killer, but nevertheless I was not over-thrilled.”

‘As it drew near, he first thought it was a tortoise or a turtle, but as it came abreast of the boat he changed his mind. The head of the creature was about two-and-a-half feet out of the water, a head that had ‘two huge round eyes like apples’, and what Mr Gavin described as the head of a tortoise magnified the size of a donkey’s. There was a gash-like mouth, with pronounced lips, occupying about half of the head’s circumference. The mouth opened and shut rhythmically, showing a red interior and emitting a wheezing sound that reminded Tex of a cow with pleurisy. He could see neither nostrils nor ears. Some two feet behind the head the back showed higher than the head, and eight feet or more long; it rose steeply to a gradual fall aft, dark brown, but not as dark as the head. This back was not smooth but “rose out of the water like the Cuillin hills”, as Tex wrote in his letter the next day. The impression, he said was of an animal weighing some five tons.

‘At its nearest point the creature was no more than fifteen or twenty yards from Tex’s boat; it travelled at five knots or so, heading SSW towards Barra. Every detail of the story is corroborated by Tex’s companion, and in such ideal conditions of visibility and proximity it would be difficult for either or both men to have been victims of optical illusion.’

Maxwell adds, tantalisingly: ‘It is not the first tale, or even the second, of monsters in the vicinity of Soay.’ Ring of Bright Water was first published just a year after the above sighting.

So there you have it. But what was it? Perhaps our crytpozoologically-minded readers will have an explanation.

Article © Richard Holland 2011. The extract is from ‘Ring of Bright Water’ by Gavin Maxwell and is copyright the estate of Gavin Maxwell and the publishers, 1960. The photo is by John Allan /Creative Commons and shows the remains of the Island of Soay Shark Fisheries, an enterprise started by Maxwell and which orginally employed Geddes before Maxwell abandoned it to live at Sandaig and Geddes bought Soay himself.

4 Responses to Sea monster in the Hebrides

  1. quinton godsell says:

    leatherback turtle.

    • Robert Lloyd says:

      Yup – that was my first thought too. They are massive creatures, much bigger than most other sea turtles, and their carapaces don’t look much like those of their cousins. Even someone whose spent a lot of time at sea could go their whole lives without seeing one, and not recognize it once they did.

      The insides of their mouths are horrifying, too. Google Image it sometime.

      • richard says:

        Thanks Robert! This seems to be the general consensus of opinion. The report is quite well-known, apparently. Not surprising bearing in mind it’s in a best-selling book but odd material can crop in the most unexpected of sources.

  2. Kimberly says:

    Leatherbacks only (?) weight about 700 kg at most (1543 pounds). This would make it less that 3/4 tons. The book indicates the creature was nearly 7 times that (5 tons). And they both ruled out a turtle.

    The interesting bit to note is that there appears to have been more than one hump or the back would not be described as HILLS (plural).

    Given the number of sightings of other large serpentine creatures in the northern inland lakes in the area, it makes one wonder if perhaps those inland creatures have escape routes to the seas.

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